Music:BOURNEMOUTH SO / ANDREW LITTON, Anvil, Basingstoke

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The Independent Culture
Femmes don't come much more fatales than Salome, that "dim and distant figure... beyond the reach of punctilious, pedestrian minds, and accessible only to brains shaken and sharpened and rendered almost clairvoyant by neurosis." The description, from J K Huysmans' novel Against Nature, refers not to the Salome of Richard Strauss's opera, nor to the Oscar Wilde play from which the opera derives; but to the Salome painted by Gustave Moreau. Yet the figure Huysmans describes belongs in the opera house, where brains are routinely "shaken and sharpened."

If Salome's home is the opera house, what of a "concert staging", such as that presented last Tuesday by Andrew Litton and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the Anvil in Basingstoke? Is the idea of a "concert staging" (this one credited to Christopher Newell) that it should remove such inconveniences as theatricality and imagination, thereby placing the opera within reach of "punctilious, pedestrian minds"?

Perhaps, yet Litton's singers acted out key confrontations, in the process showing a willingness to go for the grand gesture that ensured that this gaudy score was not embalmed in tasteful restraint. All the singers dressed head to foot in black except for Ragnar Ulfung's Herod who, in dinner jacket and white shirt, looked like the unctuous MC of a darts match; and the Salome of Nicole Philibosian, in virginal white. All the while Alan Held's Jokanaan twisted a rope between his hands, to remind us that he was a prisoner.

Occupying a halfway house between concert and opera produced the occasional ludicrous moment, as when Philibosian signalled the start of Salome's "Dance of the Seven Veils" by shaking her shoulders a few times, then retiring demurely. Otherwise theatricality was enhanced by the fact that none of the singers required scores, not even Gillian Knight, late stand- in as Herodias for an indisposed Sarah Walker.

Litton placed the singers behind the orchestra, which preserved an opera house balance but made them rather distant. Yet vocal lines came across loud and clear. Philibosian's voice has a light, slightly metallic flutter that suits Salome, and although there were one or two shaky moments, she is a strong and dramatic presence.

Ragnar Ulfung's Herod looked frail, about to collapse at all the excitement. It may not all have been acting: he was troubled by a persistent cough, and didn't take the platform when the cast returned to accept generous applause. Herodias was a nasty piece of work, the kind of characterful portrayal we expect from Gillian Knight; and Alan Held spouted Jokanaan's gibber with enough power to turn the head of impressionable Salomes everywhere.

Andrew Litton's delicate pacing never allowed the score to career out of control, and his players produced a glassy, febrile sound that seemed wholly appropriate. As the orchestra's final chords bludgeoned Salome to death, there was a collective exhalation of breath - agony? ecstasy? - that suggested the audience had indeed been shaken and sharpened by this most neurotic piece.

n Further performances at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 22 June; and at the Barbican, London, 24 June

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